At 4 a.m., the stars in the Allegheny sky are so bright and so numerous that it looks as though God is shaking salt on the Earth. Standing outside an all-night gas station, shivering in the cold, Floyd Cochran is too obsessed with his mission to notice. A rail of a man with receding brown hair, a full beard and a craggy profile, Cochran shifts anxiously from foot to foot. He takes one last pull on his cigarette, flicks the butt onto the concrete. "Let's go," he says. "I hate to be late." * Outside the car, rural Pennsylvania glides by like a stage set of small-town America. Soon, the landscape turns into farms, and then the farms become mountain wilderness. Miles pass without a light breaking the darkness on either side of the two-lane highway. Cochran is on the road to redemption. He intends to reach his destination by telling his story over and over again. * The tale that Cochran carries across the country can help us understand hatred, racism and the rage of poor white men. To view Cochran's life is to view the development of the militia mentality that might lead to an Oklahoma City bombing or the battle at Ruby Ridge. In telling the story, he hopes to atone for his past. His success depends, in large measure, on whether we believe him. * "I don't expect people to love me automatically," Cochran says. He stares out into the darkness. "My old friends don't love me, that's for sure. Of course, they weren't really friends either. My first true friends in all my life were Leonard Zeskind, who's Jewish, and Loretta Ross, who is black. In the old days, if you had told me that I would be friends with them, I'd have laughed in your face. But the truth is, they saved me." * Loretta Ross almost laughed herself when she was first called to the telephone to speak to Cochran. It was the summer of 1992. Ross was a researcher at the Center for Democratic Renewal, an Atlanta-based organization that monitors Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups. A few months before, Cochran had been named in the press as part of a plot to assassinate civil rights leaders in the Pacific Northwest.
"Is this Floyd Cochran?" she asked."The Floyd Cochran?"
The voice on the other end of the line assured her that it was, indeed, the national spokesman for Aryan Nations. Ross had seen and heard Cochran on television. He had a deep voice, like that of a radio announcer. He also had a way of delivering neo-Nazi thinking that made it seem not so threatening, not so perverse. The voice and the demeanor made Cochran one of the white-power movement's most effective and frightening leaders. "I was expecting a death threat," Ross recalls. "These people don't call someone like me to just talk."
A full-time resident of the Aryan Nations compound in northern Idaho, Cochran was one of a handful of senior officials in one of the nation's most prominent organizations of racist fanatics. Aryan Nations has been linked to bombings, murders and bank robberies. The group's master plan calls for establishing a whites-only domain in the Northwest. As head propagandist, Cochran had been praised by the Aryan Nations chief as "the next Goebbels."
In a movement full of bombast and bullying, he was articulate and soft-spoken. Though he dressed in a blue uniform with fascist shoulder patches, Cochran didn't carry a gun to press conferences or appear accompanied by menacing bodyguards. Instead, he courted the local media with doughnuts and coffee and pleaded to be quoted fairly.
Nevertheless, he was committed to hate. Jews were "Satan's offspring" who controlled world finance, the United States government and the media. Blacks were "animals" who should be returned to Africa. All other minorities were "abominations" in the eyes of God. Homosexuals, Cochran believed, were "evil perverts" who should be "put to death." When he was younger, those ideas--and too much beer--got Cochran into more bar fights than he can remember. They also got him arrested and jailed in New York State on what today would be called hate-crime charges. (He publicly threatened to torch a synagogue.)
Loretta Ross knew Cochran's resume when he called to say that he had had an epiphany and that he needed help. It had begun during the 1992 Hitler Youth Festival. One of the other men at the compound had casually brought up the subject of eugenics. In the promised land of the whites-only future, he had said, the disabled and deformed would be put to death, including one of Cochran's sons, who had been born with a cleft palate.
"This really worked on me," Cochran recalls. "I thought about it and thought about it. After a couple months, I went to see Richard Butler [the head of Aryan Nations]. I asked him if this was really a part of the Aryan policy. You know, he didn't even answer me out loud. He smiled and said nothing. But that was my answer. I knew it was true."